CHICAGO -- A year after Patrick Kane fired a shot into the goal in overtime to give the Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961, the game-winning puck is still missing.
The rubber disc hasn't been found since it was dug out of the net while the Blackhawks celebrated their victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at the other end of the ice. An auction house says the sports collectible is worth six figures, at least, and a Chicago sports collector is offering a $50,000 reward for its return.
Images from the game showed veteran linesman Steve Miller looking at the puck in the moments after Kane's goal, but he has adamantly denied that he touched it.
However, the Chicago Tribune last week located a series of photos by a staff photographer that clearly show Miller picking up the puck with his right hand, shifting it to his left hand and skating away.
When the Tribune presented the pictures to Miller in Boston, where he is officiating the Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and the Canucks, Miller said he didn't remember picking up the puck and doesn't know where it is.
"I pick up a thousand pucks a year," Miller told the Tribune. "You can ask me what I did with a puck 10 minutes ago. I can't remember every single thing I do with a puck."
In the mystery of the missing puck, the photos provide a clue -- but they haven't yet solved the case.
Gary Meagher, the NHL's senior vice president for communications, said the league spoke with Miller about the incident several months ago and stands by the linesman's account.
"He didn't remember getting the puck," Meagher said in Boston. "We sat with him. We met with him. I've talked to him numerous times. Other league officials have talked to him.
"We all wish we knew where the puck was."
The Hawks do too.
"I would certainly like to see the Blackhawks be in possession of that," team president John McDonough told the Tribune. "If ... someone would deliver it to the Blackhawks, it would be very meaningful."
Bill Hay, a member of the Hawks' 1961 Stanley Cup team, said the puck belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame, of which he is chairman and CEO. "Those pucks should go on a display and not on eBay for someone to make money off of," Hay said. "It's important to the Hall of Fame and to the public."
The NHL's officiating handbook does not address what is to happen to pucks once games end, and no rule prohibits a hockey official from taking one. Miller said there were several things he may have done with the puck -- throw it in a bucket with others, for example. But he told the Tribune he simply can't recall.
"Pucks don't mean anything to me." Miller said. "So why would that puck mean anything to me?"
Andy Van Hellemond, a Hall of Fame referee living in Canada, said it is not uncommon for referees to snag pucks and that he's got "quite a few" in his collection, including ones shot by Mario Lemieux and Johnny Bucyk. The motivation, according to Van Hellemond: If a player scores 500 goals in a career, wouldn't it be neat to have one of those?
And what of Miller, the last person seen with the puck from Kane's goal?
"He's the only one who can unconfuse you," Van Hellemond said.
Miller, 38, has been an NHL linesman since 2000 and began working playoff games his second season. He lives in a small Ontario city with his family where he played on its junior hockey team, the Stratford Cullitons.
Last June, he was one of four officials (and one of two linesmen) working Game 6 of the series between Philadelphia and Chicago.
With 4:06 elapsed in overtime, Kane's quick shot from a wide angle eluded goalie Michael Leighton. The puck became stuck in the netting, out of sight of players, fans and officials. The red light signifying a goal never came on, and the shot was a ruled a score only after video review.
Miller told the Tribune he remembers going to check to see if the puck was in the net. "We have to know whether it was a goal or not," he said. "And nobody knew if it was a goal."
Miller said he doesn't remember what happened after the puck was dislodged except that the Hawks were on the other end of the ice, swarming goalie Antti Niemi.
In the previously unpublished Tribune photos, Miller is seen retrieving the puck from the goal, then holding the puck in his right hand as he settles the displaced goal back on its moorings. Miller then skates away from the goal with the puck in his left hand.
Tribune photographer Brian Cassella took the photos with a camera mounted behind the net that was activated remotely from his position elsewhere in the stadium. A wider search of the Tribune's photo archive, which contains tens of millions of images, turned up the photos last week.
Since that fateful June night in Philadelphia, theories of what happened to the puck have been a cause for great debate and many conspiracy theories. For Chicago, which lives and often dies with its teams, a missing Stanley Cup winning puck matters.
A Chicago police sergeant offered amateur video, taken from his seat in Philadelphia, that seemed to capture Miller picking up the puck. Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray's restaurant and the city's most prominent sports memorabilia collector, is offering a $50,000 reward.
"Chicago is being robbed of a treasure," DePorter said.
The clamor is such that DePorter has been aided in his search by FBI agents who have donated their time and efforts in the quest to solve the mystery by ruling out potential pucks using state-of-the-art photographic technology.
Pucks used by the NHL aren't numbered for identification, but the FBI is reasonably confident it could authenticate the puck shot by Kane if someone claims to have it, said spokesman Ross Rice. The bureau could subject it to microscopic tests, for example.
For his part, Kane said he's aware of various rumors: that former teammate Ben Eager took it, that current Hawks forward Patrick Sharp has it -- that a linesman grabbed it.
Kane remembers the chaos on the ice and regrets that no one from the Hawks thought to grab the puck for safekeeping. "You're thinking about going to lift the Cup," Kane said.
"It would be nice to bring it back to Chicago where it belongs," he added. "Right now we're probably just hoping that it's not lost."
As the days pass, the puck's importance and potential worth are only increasing. It currently could fetch at least $100,000, said Michael Heffner, president of the international auction house Lelands.
"As we speak, the legend of this puck grows," he said. "As the legend becomes larger, so does the value."
In April, espn.com wrote about showing Miller an Associated Press photo in which the linesman appears to be looking at the puck resting on the ice. ESPN did not have photos showing Miller with the puck in his possession.
"I never touched it," Miller was quoted as saying. In the interview, he repeated that denial several times.
As the controversy picked up steam, including an April broadcast on the Canadian television network CBC that appeared to show Miller picking up the puck, Miller was removed by the NHL from this year's playoffs. But he was reinstated for the Stanley Cup Final series and was on the ice for Game 3 Monday.
Meagher said the league decided to sit the linesman during the playoffs not as punishment but to avoid attention. "We agreed for a period of about a week or 10 days that we didn't want the distraction in the playoffs," Meagher said this week. "And (Miller) didn't want it."
Terry Gregson, the NHL's senior vice president and director of officiating, said his department had looked into the matter and couldn't find the puck. He added that, in a change from previous years, officials working the playoffs "are not going near the pucks at the end of games. It is up to the team desiring it to retrieve it."
Harry Radomski, executive director to the NHL officials association, declined comment. But Meagher, the league's public relations boss, defended Miller.
"From Steve's standpoint, he has found this personally very difficult," Meagher said. "As a guy of integrity, he doesn't want this to just continually be out there. I know people have wanted to speak to him, and at the appropriate time after the playoffs we'll ask him if he wants to just sit and answer these questions."
Miller said he understands the significance of the puck to Chicago and the Hawks. He just wants the questions to go away.
"I'm just moving on from this," Miller told the Chicago Tribune as he headed for his Boston hotel room. "The best thing to do is move on from this situation."
Fans in Chicago may disagree.